Biography and History

Nikos Stangos was an influential figure in British art publishing for more than three decades, as well as a prolific Modern Greek poet. David Plante noted in 2010, "During his life, he published two volumes of poems in Greek, Poiēmata, 1966-77 (Athens: Kedros, 1979) and Ta Oikeia Perivallonta tōn Lexeōn (Athens: Kedros, 1981). Stangos confided that he was unwilling to play the game of publishing in Greece, which was to make influential connections which would lead to reviews, and, in any case, he considered his poetry to be private. He wrote in both Greek in English—sometimes the first draft in Greek, sometimes in English, which he then translated from the first language into the second. As a result, it is very difficult to determine which came first. Very few of his poems in English were published, and these in small magazines, but the English body of his work was substantial. For the book Pure Reason (Thames and Hudson, 2007), a posthumous volume of his poetry, I chose those poems from Stangos's body of work which he thought shared a common characteristic, that of a vivid philosophical sensitivity that rises to the level of poetry. To Stangos, concepts could be sensed, so the concepts of 'beauty,' 'truth,' 'the good' evoked for him subtle emotional reactions. For him, a Greek, 'ideas' were 'forms,' 'forms' 'ideas' -- 'light' was to him both light as seen with great clarity and light as an idea, as in 'I miss your light.' Concepts were to him images, images concepts. His poetry has much to do with 'absence' and 'presence,' 'absence' as potent as 'presence.' And one with this is the constant coming into focus and out of focus of the use of 'concealing' and 'revealing,' the 'concealed' as potent as the 'revealed.' Jasper Johns, in his drawing of the Stangos poem 'The Aim Was to Put a Poem Together' which he stenciled out and then covered with graphite so the words are concealed but on close examination are revealed, has interpreted visually what Stangos's poems do in words. 'Absence - presence,' 'concealed-revealed' are, in the poems, 'antinomies,' two indubitable propositions presented at the same time. In his poetry Stangos worked to bring these 'antinomies' together in what he called a 'fruitful marriage,' and in the title poem, 'Pure Reason', he succeeds in doing just that. It is a great love poem, inspired by his most personal craving, his most personal need, to live, himself, to live a life of the greatest purity of thought and feeling. And because he believed that a life most lived is lived in loving another, his poetry is impelled by his most personal craving, his most personal need, to love purely. He believed that in love the 'antinomies' would be resolved in a new knowledge of reality. Stangos's poetry was influenced by his readings in philosophy (especially Vico, Kant, and Nietzsche) and by the poetry of Wallace Stevens, some of whose poems he translated into Greek." Stangos also translated Modern Greek poetry of Constantine Cavafy, Andreas Empeirikos, and Giannēs Ritsos in the following volumes: Fourteen poems (1967), Amour, Amour: Writings or Personal Mythology (1966), Amour, Amour (2003), and Gestures, and Other Poems, 1968-1970 (1971).

Stangos was born in Athens, Greece in 1936. He was descended from both the Byzantine and the classical Greek worlds. His mother came from an old Constantinopolitan family, while his father was a member of an old Greek family that had settled in Sosopol in Bulgaria. His parents were forced to move to Athens in the early 1920s when hundreds of thousands of Greeks were expelled from Bulgaria and Turkey. Once there, and by the time of the German invasion, his father established himself as a successful architect, and, in 1944, sent his son to study at the American College, a building of his own design: that year, his heart failed, on the very day the Germans left the city. At the college, Stangos added passions for contemporary politics and poetry to his parental hinterland of classical and Byzantine culture.

As a teenager he chanced aerial leaflet-dropping for the outlawed Communist party - from the obscurity of a cinema balcony. In 1956, Stangos left Greece to continue his undergraduate studies in the United States, first at the Denison University in Ohio and then Wesleyan University in Connecticut, before going on to Harvard University to study philosophy. After Harvard, he returned to Greece to fulfill his military duty, before working briefly for Kōnstantinos Doxiadēs, the internationally renowned and innovative town planner. In 1965, he came to London, having been offered a position in the press office of the Greek embassy.

Through his friendship with the poet Nanos Valaōritēs, who himself had lived in London and had made connections with British poets, Stangos met Stephen Spender, who would be his introduction to the cultural world of 1960s London. He and Spender collaborated with David Hockney on an illustrated collection of translated poems by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (Fourteen Poems), published in 1967 by Editions Alecto. At this time, he met, through a mutual friend, the writer David Plante, and they became lifelong partners.

In 1967, with the military takeover of Greece by right-wing colonels, Stangos left the embassy, joined demonstrations against the dictators, and was granted permanent residence in the United Kingdom. It was at this time that he began his search for a job in publishing, which had always been his ambition. At a drinks party, however, he was told by an editor at Penguin Books that there was a position going for an editor of poetry, art and architecture, theatre and cinema, and philosophy. He was interviewed by Allen Lane, Penguin's founder, and was taken on.

It was the start of an extraordinary career in publishing. As editor of the Penguin Modern Poets series, he was the first to publish in England the American poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Kenward Elmslie and James Schuyler; and as co-editor, with Al Alvarez, of Penguin Modern European Poets, he brought the work of the poets Marina Tsvetaeva, Fernando Pessoa and Giannēs Ritsos (the latter translated by Stangos himself) to the attention of English readers for the first time.

He also published the writings of diverse poets such as Spender, Alvarez, Adrian Stokes and Charles Bukowski. At Penguin, he also began to work with leading writers on art. With John Fleming and Hugh Honour as outside advisers, he was responsible for the company's Style and Civilization series, which included Honour's Neoclassicism (1968), Linda Nochlin's Realism(1971) and Steven Runciman's Byzantine Style and Civilization (1975).

On the death of Allen Lane in 1970, Stangos saw that, after its acquisition by Pearson, Penguin Books was likely to change its character. So in 1974, he moved to Thames and Hudson, whose position as an independent publishing house, and its in-built respect for individualism, originality and high quality matched his own views of what his authors should expect from their publisher. With the support of the then chairman Eva Neurath and the present publisher Thomas Neurath, Stangos became a director of the company, and, as well as taking responsibility for the entire art-history list, assumed the editorship of the company's flagship World of Art, series, which he held until his retirement in May 2003.

At Thames and Hudson, he continued to work with leading artists and art historians, many of whom became lifelong friends. He was responsible for important books on David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin and R.B. Kitaj, among many others, and commissioned writers and scholars including David Sylvester, Francis Haskell, John Golding, Robert Rosenblum, Richard Wollheim and John Rewald. Aware of emerging trends in art history, he also worked with younger academics and curators, among them T.J. Clark, Rosalind Krauss, John Gage, Benjamin Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, Griselda Pollock, Tamar Garb and John Elderfield.

A number of books under his stewardship won the Mitchell Prize, one of the highest honours in art history, including Claude Monet: the Colour of Time (1992) by Virginia Spate, Colour and Culture (1993) by John Gage and John Golding's Paths to the Absolute (2000). He was as passionate about the very latest in art as he was about art of the past, and he commissioned some of the groundbreaking books on new media, installation, performance and video art.

Source: From the finding aid for C1375

  • Nikos Stangos Papers. 1953-2009 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C1375

    Consists of personal papers of Nikos Stangos, a prolific Modern Greek poet and one of the most influential figures in British art publishing. For more than 30 years he was responsible for some of the most important art books of the late 20th century. As a result, in his modest way, he helped shape the discipline of art history in Britain and the United States.